A note on the old Workers' Socialist League

Submitted by sm on 6 April, 2007 - 10:21

The Thornett group was a break away to the right, by people who expected good things for the working class from the Wilson Labour government elected in February 1974.

To be sure, they lived in an organisation - the WRP of Gerry Healy - where any sort of thinking aloud brought brutal reprisals. They had scarcely started to voice criticisms of the crazy and mostly ultra-left policies of the WRP before they were expelled.

Their first orientation was towards the "Bulletin" group, ex-WRPers pushing a heavily Labourist line. Then they recoiled.

Initially claiming as its membership the 200 people who had been expelled from the WRP, the group attracted a lot of others, some of them vocal and articulate people with much of their own political baggage. The ability of the group to develop into coherence depended on its ability to come to terms with the history and the problems of the Trotskyist movement, including what had been specific to the SLL/WRP. It never came near to doing it.

The WSL reverted to the politics of the less sectarian Healy group of the early and mid sixties, modifying and augmenting them as experience and need suggested.

The WSL organised itself as a loose and lacklustre low-watt personality cult around the "worker leadership" - Alan Thornett and Tony Richardson, but essentially Thornett - and with the politics of each local group varying more or less according to the experience and predilections of the local leader.

The politically loose structure of the Workers' Socialist League (WSL) allowed it to survive and recruit, but simultaneously condemned it to political incoherence, sterility and, ultimately, to political futility.

The self-designated "worker leadership" were the major public asset of the group in their capacity as car factory shop stewards - Thornett was a driver and Tony Richardson a line worker - and its greatest liability in their capacity as political leaders. In fact they picked and chose and arbitrated between the different political currents in the organisation, while keeping an eye on what the other "Trotskyist" groups were saying in order to keep within a "Trotskyist" consensus.

The talismanic "worker leadership" was the "court of last resort" for the organisation: nothing could move without their licence.

However, this seemed to be a comparatively limited, more or less harmless sort of cult, something rooted in the SLL/WRP past of a grouping that was slowly dissolving into rational politics.

That is why we fused with them. In fact we found that the slow dissolution was into demoralisation and disorientation more than into rationality.

The cult of the "worker leadership" made political life very difficult in the merged organisation. We found ourselves in a strange political world in which the "worker leadership" operated not by way of political discussion on the leading committees - or outside them - and decision-making on the basis of reason and argument, but by averaging out a consensus from the sum total of the variegated politics of those prepared to bow to the "worker leadership" and accept them as arbiters. They acted on the leading committees as "shop stewards" and spokesmen for their supporters. Everything was weighted against rational politics and rational procedures. When political differences arose, it became impossible to manage them.

The political spectrum of their supporters ranged from ultra-left sectarians to the extreme "Labourist" right wing of the fused organisation, the "new WSL".

The Oxford-educated "intellectual" who - until December 1983 - was joint editor of the fused organisation's weekly paper, Socialist Organiser, John Lister, was so well-trained that you could agree with him, or jointly write an article with him, and then, when the "worker leadership" didn't like it or denounced it, see him vote on the Executive Committee to condemn himself, and you, for the article! The self-denouncing vote happened rarely; lesser examples of the same thing, frequently.

The result: the fusion fell apart in 1984; and by the time it fell apart, the Thornett group itself had also fallen apart. Thornett himself was left with a rump, fewer than a third of those he had brought into the fusion. The others had scattered into inactivity, into Labourism, or into various sects.

Thornett himself - with a tiny handful of his former comrades - is now in the International Socialist Group.